THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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The jewel in East London’s culture map has to be the Frank Matcham designed Hackney Empire in Mare Street. Nobody matched Matcham for theatres which combined a great acoustic and easy sightlines and became palaces of entertainment. One of the finest theatres in the country, this Edwardian gem was lovingly restored and reopened in 2004 and has gone from strength to strength.
It’s no museum however and runs a vibrant year-round programme encompassing comedy (a home of stand-up), theatre, family entertainment (the famous Christmas panto) and opera. It’s in high demand as a movie location, (Judy was filmed here) and is regularly used for taping of TV entertainment shows and radio concerts.
A new young leadership team of Yamin Choudury and Jo Hemmant have injected a fresh energy in the building and recently unveiled their plans for the year. There will be lots of comedy including stars such as Sara Pascoe as well as the famous New Act of the Year showcase hosted by Jo Brand. There will also be a World Comedy Clash with involving comedians from 13 countries. In opera there will be visits from English Touring Opera (bringing Cosi fan Tutte, St John Passion and Giulio Cesare) and Utopia Limited in co-production with Scottish Opera.
One of the theatre highlights of US interest will be a visit next autumn from the great Headlong company who will bring their new production of August Wilson’s Jitney . Debris Stevenson’s hit show Poet in Da Corner, a coming of age story inspired by Dizzee Rascal’s seminal album will visit from March 31 to April 4 and Stevenson is also creating her next show Write to Rave at Hackney.
What is particularly commendable about Hackney Empire is its commitment to new talent. On February 21 East London’s biggest talent showcase for young people, Alter Ego will hold its final. Now in its tenth year, the finalists are mentored by top industry professionals and then perform alongside headline acts.
Artistic Director Choudury is particularly proud of their Artists Development programme (ADP), now in its 20th year. This year in August it will include a fresh musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet which will draw in a cast and crew of fifty 13 to 19 year old Londoners.
Choudury’s own, often challenging, life as young man raised in Tottenham reflects the lived experience of many of the young people and the communities which he seeks to engage in the company’s work. He first found the Empire as a 17 year old having never seen the inside of a theatre. The Creative Futures programme which he now runs is a year round programme of engagement and already involves 4000 young people. As he says about his work “We want to create a sense of entitlement for those that feel unentitled. If you’re in the space it’s yours”.
The theatre has had a big challenge in a tough financial climate to cater for its different and diverse audiences and is succeeding more than most.